Book Review – "The Pity of War"

December 11, 2016
5 mins read

The Pity of War. Niall Ferguson. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Pp. xliii+563. $17.00. ISBN 0-465-05712-8.
Organizing his book, The Pity of War, around ten hypothetical questions, Niall Ferguson attempts to show that not only was World War I the “greatest error in modern history,” but that it was particularly England’s fault that the conflict escalated into a world-wide conflagration and lasted for as long as it did. Ferguson not only places the blame squarely on England, but indicates that Germany was fairly innocent in the whole affair. In fact, had England simply refrained from becoming involved in defense of Belgium and France, allowing Germany to attack France without British support, the result would have been the creation of some sort of German-controlled European Union such as exists in the modern world. It would simply have been created eighty years sooner.
No doubt, such a thesis will ruffle some feathers, and can possibly lead to a re-examining of the causes and results of the war. To accomplish his aim, Ferguson uses a plethora of statistics, in an almost overwhelming manner. Graphs, charts, and tables fill the pages of the book, in a seemingly transparent attempt to show that the author has done his research – in fact, the statistics are so prominent that they can be intentionally overlooked and interpreted as “filler” used to pad the argument, without having much real impact on the reader. For the reader who does engage them, these charts compare various nation’s production of resources, financial standing, or other such things, showing how the economic, social, political situation was developed in the lead-up to the war, how the various situations reacted to the war, and what the final status was at the end of the conflict. These charts are often hard to follow as one will contain a set of four or five nations, while the next, on a similar topic, will have a different list of nations, making comparison of the charts difficult, if not impossible.
warIn many ways, Ferguson simply takes a contrarian position on his proposed hypothetical questions, knowing it will provoke a response. His positions include controversial interpretations: Germany should have been more militaristic to avoid conflict; the value of men could be measured in dollars and cents (or pounds sterling); Germany only lost the war because German soldiers suddenly began surrendering, though they were better at killing than the allies; Men only fought because they wanted to, losing the desire to return to normal life.
For Ferguson, the war was an unnecessary and wasteful event, and in that, he might be correct, but not for the reasons he argues. His contention is that the very things the British leadership hoped to avoid eventually happened anyway, albeit eight decades later. It was also true that historical monarchies in Russia, Austria, Germany, and eventually Turkey were toppled, replaced by republics. This was not an intended consequence, but had far-reaching ramifications in world events, continuing into the present. In that, it was not intentionally the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.” At the same time, a century of economic advances was destroyed by the destruction of the war, and Ferguson’s commentary shows that the nations that had the strongest economic growth were often the nations that suffered the most during the war. Russia serves as the prime example of this.
Ferguson attempts to show that the war was not inevitable, but was the result of a mismanaged foreign policy and diplomatic blunders, especially by Britain. Germany had no designs on world conquest, allied arguments to the contrary, but opted for war because it feared its world position was in danger of decline, including its control of colonial possessions. The allied powers were financially superior to Germany and the other central powers, but very nearly lost the war, because Germany was more efficient with money, resources, and men, in addition to strategy. The Germans were more efficient in killing, as well, costing less to kill more. The frontline conditions were so terrible that it is almost unthinkable that men would continue to participate in the conflict, and Ferguson posits that fatalism took hold, where men no longer could even fathom anything besides the war conditions. Ultimately, it was the lessening of German morale that allowed the allies to achieve victory, not as a result of any real allied strategy.
While Ferguson argues that England was mostly to blame for the length, severity, and result of the war, and that Germany intended on a quick victory, hoping to establish a unified Europe, Keir Lieber concludes that Germany knew exactly what the war would be like when it first attacked France and penetrated into Belgium – long and bloody – and it had no expectation that the war would be won by a lightning strike invasion of France. Germany hoped to establish German hegemony over the European continent. Both Ferguson and Lieber agree that German strategy at the war’s beginning was flawed, but Lieber points out that by the 1970s, historians assigned more blame to Germany than had been previously thought, contrary to Ferguson’s assertion that England was ultimately to blame. In fact, according to Lieber, Germany was extremely militaristic, with designs on European dominance: “offensive realism asserts that great power wars are driven by power-maximizing states with regional hegemonic ambitions, not status quo states struggling with fears of their own encirclement” (p. 165). While Ferguson states that the Schlieffen Plan was a flawed German strategy, Lieber posits that recent research shows that it was never the real German strategy, but was used as a ploy (if it truly existed at all, outside of myth), while the German military implemented other short-term strategies, recognizing that the war would last for an extended period of time. While Lieber argues that German leaders were not sure how Britain would respond to the July crisis of 1914, they intentionally, and skillfully, used circumstances to position the European situation to cause the war that they wanted. Ferguson blames England, while Lieber clearly blames Germany for the war. Lieber’s use of modern research, some completed after the publication of Ferguson’s book, warrants attention.
Ferguson’s book contains copious amounts of research, notes, and resources for further study. Over 50 pages are devoted to the endnotes alone, with 24 pages for the bibliography. The author certainly utilized available research. The problem, as demonstrated in the preceding paragraph, is that there is ample research that contradicts and/or disproves his thesis. Ferguson cherry-picked his data. Much of the referenced material is useful and is worthy of further study, but he conveniently ignored much of the argument those documents offered.
However, it should not be thought that there is nothing of value in the book. The images in two plate sections are alone worth the price of the book. The haunting faces of the common soldiers, the destruction as preserved in photographs, and the immediacy of death are clearly accessible in those illustrations. In addition, while many of the book’s conclusions are suspect, they do instigate conversation on the topics that they address. This could lead to further studies, which would be beneficial, especially since there is new research ongoing in this area, according to Lieber. Besides these benefits, Ferguson is an engaging writer, and it is easy to enjoy reading this work.
Ultimately, though, the book must be judged on its conclusions, not its pictures and writing style. In that regard, Ferguson’s The Pity of War fails. It is incompatible with accepted and proven historical conclusions on the war, in general. While there might be isolated minor topics where the book presents a viable conclusion, the overall thesis is not proven. England was not the belligerent nation, nor was it primarily at fault for the war. That responsibility belongs to the Kaiser’s Germany. Ferguson has offered an enjoyable read, but the content is more fiction than history. While he confidently concludes his book with the assertion that the war was Britain’s error, that assertion is never conclusively proved with reliable facts or research. The book might be considered a success in number of sales, but not in being a reliable history. On that count, it does not measure up, and much is the pity.
Lieber, Keir A. “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory.” International Security , Vol. 32, No. 2 (Fall, 2007), pp. 155-191.

Lead Scheduler at MOTW. Husband, Father, but most importantly, a man of God. Possesses more degrees that most people find useful.


  1. I would like to say too that Britain lost so much of the flower of its young manhood to this war and to the second one. Not too many people talk about that. But they lost a significant amount of young men who would have fathered babies and carried on the national traditions that made Britain what it was. Considering the size of the island nation, that is a significant loss for them.
    Excellent and thought provoking article sir. Well done.

    • Yes, the unrealized consequences of war are often overlooked. Who knows what men might have survived and gone on to do great things, had they not been killed in battle.

  2. Now, a book that explored the question of whether or not world war II was truly Germany’s fault, or the fault of those who used the well-deserved punitive expedition against Poland as an excuse to try to annex Germany and create a global empire, would be extremely well supported.

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